When Josh Pastner was a senior at Kingwood High School in Houston in 1995, he knew that getting an athletic scholarship to play college basketball was a long shot for a slow, 5-foot-9, Jewish point guard.
So Pastner marketed himself as a “coach in training” and sent over 1,000 handwritten letters to basketball coaches across the United States, asking to be a player-coach.
Speaking at the first breakfast meeting of Chabad Intown’s Jewish Business Network-Midtown Atlanta on Wednesday, May 10, Pastner, who is now the head men’s basketball coach at Georgia Tech, said he got only one reply, from University of Arizona Coach Lute Olson.
Olson was intrigued at having an extra coach on the bench who could connect with the players, and he invited Pastner to walk on as a freshman at Arizona, which he did. The Wildcats won the 1997 national championship in Pastner’s first season on the bench.
Pastner, who was named the 2017 ACC Coach of the Year, spoke at the inaugural JBN event about how he earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Arizona in only 3½ years while playing basketball and how he became the head coach at the University of Memphis at age 31.
John Calipari had led Memphis to a 137-14 record in his last four seasons at the school, with four trips to the NCAA Tournament and one to the Final Four, before Pastner took over in 2009. Pastner had been an assistant to Calipari in 2008.
“No one wanted to follow John Calipari at Memphis,” Pastner said. “The Memphis athletic director, R.C. Johnson, had gone after everybody and finally just offered me the job. When he asked me, I’m 31 years old and thinking I’m going to get punked by Ashton Kutcher. This is not how it’s supposed to happen.”
Although Pastner had success during his seven seasons at Memphis, he never could get out from under the shadow of Calipari, who has reached four Final Fours and won one national title at Kentucky since leaving Memphis.
When Pastner heard about the head coach opening at Georgia Tech last year, he said, he was excited to start at a school coming off a couple of down years.
In his first season, Georgia Tech finished the regular season with a 21-16 record, including 17 home wins, the most in school history. He led Tech to the championship game of the NIT for only the second time.
Answering questions from JBN attendees, Pastner said recruiting at an academically challenging school such as Tech is a lot different from the experience at Memphis, so he hired two assistant coaches with backgrounds at top academic schools in Division I: Stanford and Northwestern.
He said he is OK with the one-and-done rule, under which the NBA requires players to wait a year after finishing high school before entering the league, and he doesn’t expect it to go away. He said he thinks the way for Tech to compete against elite one-and-done players at schools such as Duke is to get older and stronger as a team.
The next meeting of the JBN will be a real estate symposium at the sales and event center of Opus Place Atlanta on Thursday, June 22.